“Confluence: Lennie & Jesse” is a new show at the Thomas Center Galleries spotlighting the work of two iconic Gainesville artists, Lennie Kesl and Jesse Aaron. The opening reception is Friday night.
Lennie Kesl and Jesse James Aaron were two Gainesville originals.
Kesl was a renowned UF and Santa Fe College art professor whose work crossed every medium and whose personality was larger than life. Aaron was a former farmworker and cook who turned to woodcarving at age 81 after God sent him a message in the middle of the night.
The two men became friends in the early 1970s. Kesl often rode his bicycle past Aaron’s home on Northwest 7th Avenue just to marvel at all the woodcarvings in his yard.
One can only imagine the lively conversations between the college professor and the humble octogenarian.
Both men are gone now—Aaron passed away in 1979 at age 92; Kesl died in 2012 at age 86—but the two master artists left behind wonderful memories and ageless artwork.
Gainesville gets a chance to revisit with Kesl and Aaron this summer during a double exhibition at the Thomas Center Galleries. Titled “Confluence: Lennie & Jesse,” the exhibit will have an opening reception on Friday from 7-10 p.m. during the monthly Artwalk Gainesville. The public is invited to attend.
Russell Etling, Cultural Affairs Manager for the City of Gainesville, said the Thomas Center Galleries had been determined to honor Kesl with an exhibit on the anniversary of his 90th birthday in June.
“We’d been thinking about an exhibit that recognizes him but also saw that there was an opportunity to spotlight another highly esteemed artist with roots in Gainesville at the same time,” Etling said. “Since Lennie and Jesse knew each other, there was an exciting dynamic.”
Anne E. Gilroy, who knew Kesl as a teacher, as a fellow artist, as a musician and as a friend, is curating the exhibit, which is actually two distinct exhibits under one clay-tile roof.
“Faces of Kesl” is on display upstairs in the Thomas Center Mezzanine Gallery and includes dozens of line drawings of familiar faces by the artist as well as portraits that photographer Charlotte Kesl took of her father in his later years.
Aaron’s exhibit, called “Tree of Life,” is a collection of 35 wood sculptures carved by the artist with a chainsaw, hammer, two-inch chisel and pocketknife. The roughhewn work is on display in the first-floor Main Gallery, site of the former kitchen of the Hotel Thomas, where Aaron once worked as a baker and pastry cook.
Earlier this week, Gilroy was putting the pieces in place for the Aaron exhibit with the input (and muscle) of Adam Germann and Dan Rountree. Many of Aaron’s cypress and cedar carvings of animals and human figures weigh 50 pounds or more.
“Jesse Aaron’s vision at a late age—he was 81 when he began carving—is extraordinary,” Gilroy said. “All of his pieces are infused with life and spirit.”
The story goes that, in 1968, Aaron’s wife was going blind and he couldn’t afford her cataract surgery. One night he was awakened at 3 a.m. by a voice saying “Jesse, carve wood!” He immediately went into his workshop and created his first small sculpture.
A year later, Aaron had sold enough woodcarvings to pay for his wife’s eye surgery. But his late-life career as a woodcarver had only begun.
He incorporated “found” materials such as hats, animal horns and bones into his work. To create eyes for his sculptures, he poured epoxy resin into egg cartons and placed the flat end of nails into the resin. When the resin hardened, Aaron not only had pupils for the eyes but also a means to fasten the eyes to the woodcarving.
Germann, a preparator for other galleries around Gainesville, agreed with Gilroy that Aaron’s sculptures are “imbued” with life.
“When you spend time with them, they seem very friendly, like storybook characters come to life,” Germann said.
Etling, whose Thomas Center office is just upstairs from Aaron’s “Tree of Life” exhibit, said he has a special fondness for the artist. Aaron was born in Lake City in 1887 to a black family with 12 children. He also had Native American ancestry, which is reflected in his work.
“To me, Jesse Aaron’s installation will be considered a landmark show for the community,” Etling said. “This selection of pieces represents some of his finest work and will probably never be seen together again.”
Most of the Aaron pieces are on loan from collectors throughout Gainesville.
“We couldn’t put on this show at the Thomas Center without having incredibly generous lenders from the community,” Gilroy said.
One prominent piece on display in “Tree of Life” is that of a man’s head carved from a tree limb and topped with a black leather hat.
“I have been told by the owner that it’s a Jesse Aaron self-portrait, but I can’t verify that in any documents,” Gilroy said.
Gilroy never met Aaron, but she was quite familiar with Kesl as a mentor and friend. At one point, they had adjacent studios in the Tench Building on South Main Street.
When asked to describe Kesl, Gilroy shrugged.
“You don’t describe him,” she said. “He’s Lennie!”
She remembered Kesl walking up to a friend one year at the Friends of the Library Book Sale and serenading her with “Sugar” by Lee Wiley. Dave Ballard, event coordinator for the City of Gainesville, still has a puppet on his desk—complete with a $15 yard-sale price tag attached—in the same spot where Kesl left it as a gift shortly before his death three and a half years ago.
Although Kesl worked in a number of mediums—metal, steel, printmaking, painting and ceramics, to name a few—the “Faces of Kesl” exhibit spotlights only his line drawings.
“I didn’t want to try and look at his entire body of work,” Gilroy said. “We narrowed it down to his portrait study. It’s an intimate exhibition both in terms of scale and in terms that the people displayed are Gainesville people.”
Gilroy said the overall exhibit was titled “Confluence” because of the overlapping relationships between the featured artists and the community. That extends to her relationship as curator with Kesl as well as her friendship with his daughter Charlotte Kesl.
The 14 photographs on exhibit by Charlotte Kesl of her late father reflect his charm and his sense of humor.
“The photos are so emotionally tender and revealing because they are taken by his daughter and they provide great context to his work,” Etling said.
Charlotte Kesl was only 24 when her father died, but she said he left her with a lifetime of memories.
“He had a public persona—he always filled up a room,” Charlotte Kesl said, adding that he was also a huge presence as a father.
“I was with him all the time growing up and I was around art constantly. We took trips together. We were really close. I was definitely inspired by him,” she said.
Charlotte Kesl said she is in the process of cataloging all six decades of her father’s artwork with the hope of someday displaying it in Gainesville.
She added, “I think he would get a kick out of seeing my work displayed with his.”
Etling said that “Confluence: Lennie & Jesse” helps seal the legacies of two iconic Gainesville artists.
“What’s significant is that, as the years move forward, they will both grow in stature because of the quality of their work and their originality.”
Confluence: Lennie & Jesse
Thomas Center Galleries
302 NE 6th Ave.
Gainesville, FL 32601
On exhibit May 27-Sept. 20, 2016
Gallery Hours: Monday through Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 1-4 p.m.